One of the largest wildlife refuges on the west coast can be found just an hour and 40 minutes from Oakhurst - a drive well worth the effort for anyone who loves wildlife and the great outdoors.
The Merced National Wildlife Refuge attracts thousands of wintering waterfowl as they migrate along the Pacific Flyway (a route that ranges from Alaska to Central and South America), songbirds, shore birds and a permanent population of small mammals.
The refuge also hosts large populations of lesser Sandhill cranes and arctic-nesting geese for some six months of the year.
My visits in November, January and February over the past three years have yielded sightings of cranes, Ross’ and snow geese, black-crowned night herons, cinnamon teal, northern pintails, white pelicans, greater white-fronted geese, a pair of gadwall, common snipe, great egrets, flocks of American coots, swans, black-necked stilts, yellow-rumped warblers, white-faced ibis, northern shovelers, red-tailed hawks and one great horned owl.
The website: www.fws.gov/refuge/merced/ features a calendar highlighting the arrival times of some of the refuge’s winged visitors.
Other refuge residents such as coyotes and ground squirrels can be found year round. Favorites for younger visitors are desert cottontail rabbits, seen frequently near the first viewing platform. Picnic tables as well as brochures with photos and checklists of birds and mammals are available near this platform.
Visitors follow a five-mile automobile route, making the refuge easily accessible. A second viewing platform located along the route just before the cornfield where the geese and cranes gather by the thousands, offers visitors a chance to leave their cars and use a spotting scope to capture glimpses of ducks, geese and smaller songbirds.
There are also nature walking trails located in the refuge. The Meadowlark, Kestrel, Bittern Marsh and Cottonwood Trails range from .5 mile to 1.5 miles.
“The Merced National Wildlife Refuge encompasses 10,258 acres of wetlands, native grasslands, vernal pools, and riparian areas,” their website explains.
“It was established in 1951 under the Lea Act to attract wintering waterfowl from adjacent farmland where their foraging activities were causing crop damage. In the last few decades, changes in local agricultural practices and Refuge management activities have reduced these wildlife/crop issues.”
The Merced refuge is just one area of the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge Complex which also includes the San Luis and San Joaquin River National Wildlife Refuges and the Grasslands Wildlife Management Area - nearly 45,000 acres of wetlands, grasslands and riparian habitats.
What to bring: binoculars, spotting scopes, cameras, water, sun protection, warm clothes when it is foggy and snacks for the younger crowd. I have taken grandchildren as young as four on the auto tour. When I have taken them back for a repeat visit, they especially remember the late afternoon fly-in of the cranes and geese. Take a moment at the beginning of your tour to review the refuge guidelines: remain in your car on the auto tour, keep noise levels to a minimum, no feeding wildlife, remove all trash.
Details: Open year round - hours are 1/2 hour before sunrise to 1/2 hour after sunset -